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Authors: Michael Perry

From the Top

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FROM THE TOP

ALSO BY MICHAEL PERRY

BOOKS

Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace

Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting

Truck: A Love Story

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets and Gatemouth's Gator

Big Rigs, Elvis & The Grand Dragon Wayne

Why They Killed Big Boy

AUDIO

The Clodhopper Monologues

Never Stand Behind a Sneezing Cow

I Got It from the Cows

MUSIC

Headwinded
(Michael Perry and the Long Beds)

Tiny Pilot
(Michael Perry and the Long Beds)

FROM THE TOP

BRIEF TRANSMISSIONS FROM

TENT SHOW RADIO

MICHAEL PERRY

WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PRESS

Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Publishers since 1855

Text copyright © Michael Perry 2013

E-book edition 2013

Portions of this book are adapted from material previously published by HarperCollins and in
Men's Health
and the
Wisconsin State Journal.

For permission to reuse material from
From the Top
(ISBN 978-0-87020-680-1; e-book ISBN 978-0-87020-681-8), please access www.copyright.com or contact the Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. (CCC), 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA 01923, 978-750-8400. CCC is a not-for-profit organization that provides licenses and registration for a variety of users.

wisconsin
history
.org

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Perry, Michael, 1964-
  From the top : brief transmissions from Tent Show Radio / Michael Perry.
     pages cm
   ISBN 978-0-87020-680-1 (pbk.) — ISBN 978-0-87020-681-8 (e-book) 1. Perry, Michael, 1964—Anecdotes. 2. Tent show radio (Radio program) I. Title.
AC8.P577 2013
814'.6—dc23

2013041080

To the founders of Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua.
They raised this tent in every sense.

To the volunteers.
If you're at a show and see someone
in a blue vest, please thank them.

And to the audience.
It's empty without you.

CONTENTS

Introduction

A FINE PLACE TO START

Victoria's Secret and the Cosmos

Teetotal

Here We Go Again

Re-decaffeinated

The Big Thankful

Avulsion Aversion

Logger Clogs

Ring On, Ring Off

Walking Nowhere

Cheaters

Gozzled

No Limits

The Road

Priorities

Reasonableness

PAST TENTS, PRESENT TENTS

First Time

Taking the Air

Sweaty Cheese and Injured Cereal

A World Away

Flying above the Canvas

Black Dog

Canvas Rain

THE INNER CIRCLE

Song for My Daughters

Pet of the Week

Dumpster Date

Chicken Coop Campout

Typhoid Mary

That Cat

Used Car Shopping

Firewood Friend

Tough Granny

The White Pine

Christmas Tree Kids

Neverending New Year

A SENSE OF PITCH

Happy Mourning Music

Coolsville

Steve Earle, Life Coach

Advice from a Grammy Winner

Guitar Girls

Blues for Amateurs

LOCK UP THE CHICKENS

Asparagus

Unfarmer

Haute Pig Feed

Skunk War

E-I-IPO

Cock-a-Doodle-Ego

Snow Plow Trouble

Really Free-Range Chicken

Pathfinding

FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS

The Cutting Edge

Friendly Fencing

Truck Talk

John Deere Funeral

Ambulance Karma

Tom and Arlene in Love

In the Wake of the Wake

Acknowledgments

INTRODUCTION

Ah, it's great to be way up north here under the beautiful blue and pearl-gray canvas, this fine, stout tent at the foot of Mount Ashwabay, overlooking the ancient waters surrounding the Apostle Islands and just one sailful of breeze away from Chequamegon Bay.

The performance you're about to hear is one in a long, long tradition of singing, dancing, and storytelling performed live and in person beneath this beautiful tent. We keep 'er pitched from June until the autumn moons, and we'd be most grateful if you choose to join us; you'll find a complete schedule at
bigtop.org
. We hope you join us, and if you do, when the first note rises from the stage we think you'll understand why patrons and performers alike love to say: Big Top Chautauqua … it's the Carnegie Hall of Tent Shows.

For the past three years it has been my privilege to approach a microphone and recite those words as the host of
Tent Show Radio,
a production originating from a spacious canvas tent pitched at the base of a ski hill overlooking Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin.

I invoke the term
privilege
with specific intent. The history of Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua extends back over a quarter-century now, and I am a late arrival. The tent didn't pitch itself. It was raised by a small band of freethinking optimists, and every time I step to the microphone I keep that in mind. I offer the contents of this book not from a position of propriety but rather as a grateful guest. I'm just a guy allowed to sneak in through the backstage flap now and then.

• • •

The best seat in the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua tent is not for sale. I don't say that to be snooty or snotty, I'm just letting you know the way it is. Don't obsess over it, because the seat is located in a section theater professionals refer to as “obstructed view”—so obstructed, in fact, that you can't even see the show from there. The spot in question is situated in a brace of old drop-down theater chairs set up along the backstage walkway between the stage and the dressing rooms.

It's cozy back there, and quiet. From this seat you can see the artists preparing to take the stage. Some are “one-namers”—so famous they're recognized worldwide by their first name alone. Some should be famous but are not, and some are making their first stage appearance ever. Actors shuffle to and fro, muttering their lines. Black-clad stagehands hurry through, bound to set a last-minute prop or string a mic cord. You'll see a musician leaning in to bring his guitar in tune, or a vocalist, her throat wrapped in scarves, hunched in a chair and cupping a mug of honey-lemon tea. Novice performers pace back and forth, checking and re-checking the dry-erase board for curtain times. Veteran performers check email or discuss health insurance deductibles. The lights are low, and everyone is getting ready for the show.

I especially cherish this seat on those nippy nights early in the spring season or in the final few weeks before strike, because the crew keeps a pot of good coffee going just off the wings stage right, and the smell is even better because of the edge in the air. It's enchanting to sit in that theater chair and observe this charmed space where performers take one last deep breath before heading out to the lights and applause. Sometimes they leave behind hints of their preparation: a scribbled set list, a curled and highlighted page of script, a cellphone still glowing with the last number dialed being the number home.

Then the show begins, and even from back here you can feel the electric momentum of it, the way the performer and audience agree to dive in and see what happens. Sitting in the suddenly empty backstage space you can hear little things that don't go
out over the sound system—the scuff and twist of a dancer's slipper, the thump of a musician's heel keeping time, the creak of the stage as an actor crosses. You can see into the tangle of cords and girders beneath the stage where an electronic light blinks, relaying some information that means something to someone, and then—and this is the best, best part of all—through a gap in the velvet skirt at the stage front come distinct sounds from the audience: an anticipatory titter, an appreciative gasp, an over-loud clapper, and sometimes, when the performer has drawn a tent full of strangers deep into the center of the moment, the fragile, expectant silence.

• • •

Many of these shows—even the silent bits—are recorded and put together for broadcast on
Tent Show Radio.
My job is to introduce the show, close the show, and during intermission—right in the middle there—have a little talk about anything I wish. Those little talks are what led to the book in your hands.

As a writer I'm used to working in long form over a long time: essays that take weeks to finish, magazine pieces that take months, books that take years. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of words.
Tent Show Radio
monologues, however, have to be written once a week and must be brief enough to fit the six-minute sandwich between two thick slices of music. I've been typing for a while now, and it's been a challenge to find my voice in this format. I have also renewed my respect (established twenty years ago when I worked as a newspaper stringer) for anyone—be they plumber or poet—who produces under tight deadlines. (In fact, the radio show monologues led directly to a gig writing a weekly column for the
Wisconsin State Journal,
an opportunity for which I am grateful and baggy-eyed.) When preparing these brief transmissions, I strive for a more conversational tone and spend less time excavating the ol' thesaurus.

I was invited to host
Tent Show Radio
in part because of my books, which I drew on for many of the early show monologues.
I also often try out material on stage or in the recording studio before I commit it to print. All this is to say, you may recognize some of these stories in whole or in part.

For the purposes of this book I have tuned a few things. For one, I've restored a lot of gerunds. Folksiness tends to play better on the ear than the eye, and even then I've been known to overdo it. For the most part I've also stripped out certain prefatory and referential comments that become repetitive or make little sense outside the show. That said, I've left in quite a few
anyways
es, as in, “So, anyways … ,” as that is just the way we talk around here.

Not every
Tent Show Radio
monologue made the cut, and rather than run them in order of their original broadcast, I grouped them in loosely thematic clusters. You can read the book backward if you wish. Or scattershot. I've navigated much of my life in exactly that manner.

I hope you enjoy the pieces. And I hope you enjoy the radio show. But most of all I hope one day you have a chance to enjoy a show inside the Big Top itself. If you have the desire and constitution, I recommend you arrive early and hike to the top of Mount Ashwabay. Don't look back until you're all the way up there where the skiers unload from the lift. Then turn, and you will see the picture I try to paint every single time I introduce
Tent Show Radio
: the tent, plopped high atop the land like an Alice in Wonderland pearl-gray-and-blue-striped mushroom, a benevolent psychedelic aberration amidst swathes of verdant green sloping to a backdrop of Great Lakes blue, the distant water dappled by a scatter of treasured islands.

What a place to see a show.

A FINE PLACE TO START

One of the great freedoms of the
Tent Show Radio
format is that I am allowed to ramble on about whatever comes to mind: oddly shod loggers, my last cup of coffee, love and lost fingers, useful cheaters, gratitude, and guys who get gozzled.

Also, timeless infinity.

And Victoria's Secret.

In the same essay.

VICTORIA'S SECRET AND THE COSMOS

Lately I have been contemplating the cosmos, which is to say standing out behind the chicken coop after battening the hatches for the evening and staring at the stars. You can see the stars pretty good out back of the coop if you look down the ridge, where there's nothing but one mercury vapor farm yard light in the distance. If you look off to the north you won't see quite as many stars because someone built a big house off that way and put up their own faux vintage streetlights to line the driveway and then additionally surrounded the house with a row of halogens apparently uprooted from the runway at Chicago's O'Hare airport. No sense building a place like that if folks can't admire it all night long, I guess. And then off to the northwest, well, it's tough to see any stars at all because the horizon is always gauzy white from the glow of the parking lot lights over at the mall. It can be odd sometimes, standing in the pig pen knowing you're less than ten minutes from the fall collection at Victoria's Secret.

BOOK: From the Top
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